These are just some of the stories that I’ve heard in 20 years of ringing the bell for the Salvation Army at Christmas time in front of Publix. I watch parents and grandparents teaching their kids that charity is a part of our lives by giving them money and watching them put it into the red bucket. We are, unquestionably, a nation of the most charitable people in the world. I believe that the Salvation Army is the most efficient charity dollar in the country, and it has become my favorite charity, because it tends to keep the money local and help the local homeless and disadvantaged.
She came out of the supermarket and reached into her jeans pocket for some bills and change. She put the money into the bucket and turned to me and said, “The Salvation Army saved my life!”
“Oh?” I asked.
“It was 1968, and I was living in Detroit when they had all those riots. They burned down my apartment building — I had no money, I was six months pregnant, and I had nowhere to go. The secretary for the Salvation Army took me in until I had the baby and got back on my feet — and I’ve been paying them back ever since.”
She came up behind me on my right side, went toward the bucket and put some bills in it. Then she turned to me and said, “The Salvation Army saved my son’s life!”
“How was that?” I asked.
“He was up in Ohio, 35 years old, heavily into drugs and alcohol and going nowhere fast. Somehow, the Salvation Army got a hold of him and turned his life around. Then he started to work for the Salvation Army, and they wrote him up in one of their journals.”
Then she paused and broke out into a big smile.
“He just graduated from college, cum laude, at the age of 53,” she said.
The tall, elderly gentleman walked up to the bucket, put some money in it and started to walk into the supermarket. He turned toward me and spoke over his shoulder.
“I’m a Canadian, and I was in Italy in World War II,” he said. “All that mud and cold. The only people you ever saw every day at the front lines with free coffee and doughnuts were with the Salvation Army. The few times the Red Cross came out, they charged you a nickel.”
After she put some money in the bucket, she started to walk away, and then she turned and said to me: “The Salvation Army is the greatest! My son came back from two tours of duty in Vietnam and got killed in a knife fight in a bar. We took him up to Illinois to bury him in the family plot, and while we were there, the car broke down. We had no money. The Salvation Army got the car fixed and gave us money to get back home.”
The ordinary-looking man put some bills in the bucket and then turned to talk.
“I was in the Army in World War II, in a camp up in North Carolina, when my mother died,” he said. “I went to the Red Cross, but they couldn’t help me. The Salvation Army arranged transportation for me and gave me money so that I could go to my mother’s funeral.”
The woman came right up to me and said, “My grandfather was in World War I, and he would tell us grandkids stories about the Salvation Army helping soldiers at the front.”
The quite obviously well-to-do gentleman paused after putting some money in the bucket and turned to speak to me.
“After I came back from World War II, I wrote a check to the Salvation Army, starting in 1946. I haven’t missed writing a check to them every year since.”
He said no more and turned away to go into the supermarket.
Weldon Frost, a member of the Kiwanis Club of Longboat Key, has volunteered as a Salvation Army bell ringer for 20 years.